Researching the Blitz: James Henry Wheeler, GM

When we think about the Blitz, it's often London that springs to mind. But other areas across the UK suffered a great deal during this prolonged bombardment, with Merseyside particularly badly hit.

Military and civil decorations for gallantry, among many other awards and honours, are formally recognised through publication in The Gazette. But before these are awarded, there is a system of approval that takes place, for which The National Archives holds the records.

Among the collections of the Home Office are the records of the Interdepartmental Committee on Civil Defence Gallantry Awards (1940-49), which are arranged by case number, but which can be searched by name.

James Henry Wheeler

File number 1172 pertains to Mr James Henry Wheeler (Jim to his friends and family), of 5 Etruria Street, Garston, a senior air raid precaution warden (ARP). He was recommended by the chief constable of Liverpool to receive the George Medal for his rescue work at Saunby Street, Garston, on the night of 16 April 1941.

These files usually contain the ‘particulars of action’, a statement from the individual nominated, and supporting statements from witnesses. Although only two witness statements have survived within this file, the accompanying note indicated that the secretary to the committee had a further three to support the nomination.

'A woman and child were known to be trapped in the debris'

The particulars state that, ‘at 00.30 hours on Wednesday 16 April 1941, a high explosive bomb fell in Saunby Street, Garston, Liverpool, a working-class neighbourhood. The houses 42, 44 and 46 were demolished. A woman and child were known to be trapped in the debris of No. 42. One of the walls of this house was in danger of collapsing. Mr Wheeler, a Senior Warden, proceeded to remove debris whilst a police sergeant held a prop under the dangerous wall to prevent its falling. The debris of [No.] 44 Saunby Street was on fire and there was a serious escape of gas. After considerable labour in most difficult and dangerous conditions, Mr Wheeler was successful in releasing the woman and child who unfortunately were dead. Mr Wheeler afterwards continued the search of other houses which had been very seriously damaged and ascended staircases which were in a very unsafe condition. He was engaged in the work until 07.30 hours at which time he appeared to be in a distressed condition.’

Wheeler’s own statement follows, which was short and perfunctory: ‘I was engaged in Saunby Street, effecting rescue work and I had uncovered a woman, when a nurse came in and rendered first aid. During all this time, the sergeant was holding up a wall, and upper structure of the building was a deal [prop of wood]. He worked with me all the time. Jones assisted by keeping in touch with the sector post, and Barlow held the lamp.’

It is in the subsequent statements that the full extent of the horrors faced by Wheeler and his colleagues are revealed. The head warden wrote that, ‘there was danger in every movement of Wheeler’s, and at 6am, I was with him when the last two bodies were recovered from no. 44 Saunby Street. Wheeler ceased a hard and gallant night’s work just after 7am and his total disregard for his personal safety, coupled with the superb courage he displayed, prompts me, without any hesitation, to support to the full that Wheeler’s heroic action be recognised. It is regrettable that his heroic work met with no reward in the saving of life.’

'I honestly believe no man could have done more'

His statement also reveals that Wheeler spent several hours passing out debris to his colleagues, while he tried to rescue the woman and child from number 42. Bombs were still falling around them, and smoke from the fire in the remains of the adjacent building poured into the recess, with the only protection offered to Wheeler a handkerchief over his mouth. ‘[He] kept on working hard without any respite. A relief was offered him, but he just kept on at the work. How he stuck it, I don’t know, for the atmosphere, even in the open air, made breathing very difficult.’

Finally, the deputy warden (in the second supporting statement) stated that, ‘Wheeler by his cool and gallant work undoubtedly was a steadying influence on all the warden, who, by following his example in their various tasks, worked wonderfully and eased a situation that, although serious, at no time became panicky. I do with all the power I possess press forward Wheeler for some form of recognition, for I honestly believe no man could have done more, very few as much, as the gallant work he performed that night.’

The long story told

Jim’s great niece, writer Heidi Thomas, recalls him from her childhood in Garston as ‘an elderly man on a little moped in a long mac’. On high days and holidays, resplendent in a smart navy blazer, Jim wore his George Medal badge with great pride. Heidi says that when pressed by the family to tell how he’d been awarded his medal, he would simply reply, "It’s a long story", and would not discuss the matter any further. Only recently, through records held by The National Archives and The Gazette (Gazette supplement 35194), have the family uncovered the full story behind Jim’s George Medal.

When Heidi read the records for the first time, she was moved to tears by his modesty, by how hard he must have worked through that night and what he must have endured. What resonates particularly for Heidi is that archives have ‘the long story’, the tales which so many of this generation were too humble to tell. She says, ‘It is incredibly moving to know this, decades on, to be able to understand the true circumstances in which he was decorated for gallantry.’

The Liverpool Daily Post, on 21 June 1941, reported the award, observing that Jim was the first man in Garston to be decorated with this award.

Explore Your Archive campaign

Stephen McGann, actor, and Heidi Thomas, writer, are hosting an event for The National Archives in Liverpool (their native city) on the 15 November, called ‘Tea and testimony’, as part of the Explore your Archive campaign.

See also: The Merseyside Blitz